On Writing a Sermon in a Foreign Language

In one sense, I’m not especially qualified to write a post giving advice on writing sermons in another language. After all, I have a whopping one sermon in Japanese under my belt. But the process that has led up to this single sermon has taught me something about writing a sermon in another language that I believe is helpful to share.

The First Try

Last winter, the pastor of our church asked me to preach the following summer. I was grateful for the opportunity, and because I had nearly six months of lead time, I thought, “I think I can pull off a sermon in Japanese!” So I chose a sermon I had in my files and a bilingual friend very kindly offered to translate it for me. I had heard that this is what other foreign missionaries do to preach in Japanese, so I didn’t really consider doing anything differently.

When I received the translated sermon back, however, I encountered two major difficulties as I tried to prepare to preach it.

The first difficulty is one that is perhaps unique to Japanese, or at least to languages like Japanese that employ multiple scripts. Because my translator didn’t know what kanji (i.e., complicated-looking Chinese characters that are incorporated into Japanese) I knew, she wrote the Japanese manuscript completely in hiragana (one of two phonetic Japanese scripts). On the one hand, this made it possible for me to sound out the words that I didn’t previously know—which is impossible to do with kanji—but on the other hand it made the manuscript more difficult to read, since it was harder to differentiate between one word and the next. If you know Japanese, you know what I’m talking about; if you don’t know Japanese, don’t worry, this won’t really affect your life in any way. So that was problem #1: difficulty reading the manuscript because of the script.

The second difficulty was my inability to preach the sermon well because of a lack of familiarity with the Japanese terms, and in some cases, the grammar used. My translator’s work, of course, was fantastic Japanese, but the problem was that I’m not as fantastic at Japanese as my translator. Even though I could sound out the syllables, because I didn’t understand the meaning of each and every term, I wasn’t able to speak the words with any kind of fluidity. I’ve realized that in order to say something with conviction and fluency, I don’t simply need to know the sound of the script, I need to know the meaning of the words I’m saying.

I began to look up words I didn’t know, but the process of looking up so many words, writing them down, and then memorizing them became too much to manage. There were a lot of words I didn’t know, so eventually I gave up, realizing that I didn’t have the time required to learn that sermon. Since I didn’t want to get up in the pulpit and awkwardly struggle through reading Japanese that I didn’t understand, when the time came to preach I did it in English and a Japanese friend interpreted for me.

The Second Try

This past fall, a friend at this same church was involved in organizing the church’s Christmas concert. She asked me if I would be willing to preach a sermon at this concert. Once again, I wanted to preach in Japanese, but after my experience in the spring I knew that the first process wouldn’t work.

So I tried a different approach: I wrote the sermon completely in Japanese. That is, there was no English version of the sermon; I composed it in Japanese myself with terms and grammar that I already knew. Occasionally I would have to look up and learn a new word that I wanted to use, but there were only a handful of those. Each week I met with my Japanese tutor, who went over what I had written that week and helped me iron out the various infelicities that arose in my composition. From the very beginning this was a sermon that I understood in Japanese. For me, this was the key to preaching it.

The fact that I composed the Japanese sermon myself solved the two difficulties I mentioned above. From the beginning I was able to incorporate kanji that I knew, which helped to distinguish the words in the manuscript. But beyond that, I was even able to use kanji that I didn’t previously know because I knew the content of what I wanted to say. That is, I knew all the Japanese terms that I used, so even if I didn’t know the kanji characters beforehand, this broader context of understanding enabled me to read the text anyways. This meant that not only was I able to read the text much more easily, I actually learned new kanji throughout the process.

This self-composition also solved the problem of my not wanting to be restricted to reading the Japanese manuscript in an awkward, clunky fashion. Because I understood every single word in the sermon, I was able to preach it with conviction. Of course, when the time came to preach, the execution was much more difficult than when I preach in English. I was more tied to the manuscript than usual and my speech suffered from the usual effects of speaking a second language. However, the difference between my preaching in Japanese vs. English became a matter of degree rather than a being a different sort of activity altogether. I wasn’t simply reading a sermon, I was actually preaching it.

In Conclusion

So for any of you entering the world of preaching in a foreign language, perhaps my experience may be of some help. I realize that what works for me may not work for everyone, but I expect that for some, composing your foreign language sermon directly in that foreign language will help you communicate the Gospel message more clearly and naturally.

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Our new home in Japan

As the time comes for us to move to Japan (flying out March 1!), we thought we’d share some photos of our new home with you. This house has been a huge provision; it’s only 3 blocks from our language school and 3 blocks from Lydia’s kindergarten. We are very excited about being able to walk most places we need to go!

2 OutsideThis is a shot of the outside of the house (the front door is on the left behind the wall). It’s on a corner lot, with mostly other homes surrounding it. Behind this camera shot is a small apartment complex, so we’ll have lots of neighbors!

1 OutsideThis is a view of the back of the house. We have space to park two cars, though we’ll probably only own one. On the second story you can see the nice, large deck that connects to both upstairs bedrooms.

4 Entrance8 Entrance Hall

To the left is the front door and to the right is the entrance hall. People don’t wear shoes indoors in Japan, so the entrance hall is where everyone will remove their shoes before coming in.

12 room2This is one of two bedrooms downstairs, known as a tatami room. Tatami refers to the type of flooring in the room. The house has two bedrooms downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs.

15 DiningThis is the dining room, which is right next to the tatami room in the picture above. Easy access to breakfast for whoever ends up with that room!

20 toiletLast but not least, here is a pic of the bathroom. On top of the toilet you can see a little sink. In Japan, when you flush the toilet, this little sink runs water, which you then use to wash your hands as you straddle the swirling toilet bowl!

It’s an interesting experience the first time you do it, though it certainly is space efficient!

We are very thankful for God’s providence in this and look forward to making this house our home!

Many thanks to Yasuyo Kawai, who has done a ton of work for us to get this house and very kindly took all these pictures.

 

Missions and (Grand)Parents

Mom.Car.Lyds
Gigi, Caroline, and Lydia on their way to a fancy tea party!

We in the Newkirk clan are nearing our departure for Japan, and as we stand here toward the end of this preparation journey, I thought I’d say a word about missions and (grand)parents. I say (grand)parents here to refer to the parents of missionaries and, more significantly, the grandparents of missionary kids.

As we have gone through this season of support raising, it has become very clear that this whole missions thing is not something we have gotten only ourselves into. It is something that substantially affects our larger families, and our parents in particular.

We currently live about 15 minutes from my (Matt’s) parents, and over this last year and a half they have played a critical role in helping us get ready for the mission field. There has been practical support, such as the multitudinous times they have taken care of our kids so we could travel to an agency training event or attend to something in town that we both needed to go to. But equally as important, they have provided consistent emotional support as we have traversed the peaks and valleys of gathering a support team.

All of this has been enormously significant, not only because of pragmatic needs on our part, but because my parents are essentially helping us take their grandchildren away from them. They are serving us in order to sacrifice proximity to every empty nester’s dream: grandbabies. Of course, they have other grandchildren in town, which I’m thankful for, but it is no small thing to bless and assist the removal of one’s grandkids, period.

In contrast to this, I’ve heard multiple stories over the years of would-be missionaries who were discouraged and sometimes even dissuaded from moving overseas because of pressure from their parents and guilt over “taking the grandkids away.” While this type of sentiment is understandable from a worldly standpoint, ultimately it does not rightly prioritize God over family. In Matt 10:37 Jesus says,

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

I think we can safely extend this principle to include, “whoever loves grandson or granddaughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

If you are the (grand)parent of a missionary or potential missionary, you are in a unique position either to supremely bless or deeply discourage your children as they respond to God’s call to the mission field. For those who are inclined to try and retain proximity to your children and grandchildren, think about what Jesus will say to you when you face Him beyond this life. Could it be said that you loved Him more than son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter? Will you joyfully bless and assist your children in taking your grandchildren away from you for the sake of the gospel and the glory of God?

I hope you will, and I am forever grateful that my parents have modeled this kind of sacrifice for us.

Do you take the church for granted?

It was most poignantly on a flimsy folding chair in the middle of a dirt “field” in Juarez, Mexico that I (Caroline) began to grasp the concept that the church is far more than a building. It was a Sunday morning, and I was 18, on a short-term mission trip. As our church’s mission team gathered for worship with our Mexican brothers and sisters, I marveled at the bond we shared in Christ that transcended linguistic, cultural and economic barriers. Somehow, too, this experience of Sunday worship felt especially appropriate under a beautiful blue sky–a vaulted ceiling of the most majestic and awe-inspiring kind, created by the One whom we worshiped.

My subsequent college years were ones of concentrated spiritual growth. I was full of insecurities and felt my perpetual singleness (and the sudden loss of my father as an early teenager) acutely, and God met me in the pain, sin, and unfulfilled longings of my heart. A huge introvert, I filled volumes of journals with soul-searching reflections, struggles, and prayers. Although I had been a Christian since middle school, I began reading my Bible almost for the first time. Through my doubts and insecurities, God spoke to me afresh with the soothing balm of the Gospel.

Slowly but steadily, a deepening sense of peace, joy, and purpose in my identity in Him began to quiet my tumultuous heart and mind. He gave me believing friends and roommates who challenged and encouraged me in my faith. Once I realized weakness was an acceptable (even healthy) posture for ministry, I felt free to become involved in a number of ministries in my local church. I learned that I was not gifted in all of them, but I enjoyed each opportunity to serve Jesus through loving the people around me. I grew to deeply appreciate the older men and women, both church staff and lay people, who modeled Christian maturity to me through their words and actions.

In fact, many of these people had been there all along; I had just taken them for granted. In my own family there are generations of believers as far back as I am aware. I was raised in the southeastern U.S. and had grown up going to church. Sunday School, smiles, sermons, singing. Yet now (for a variety of reasons), I was seeing the church with new eyes. As I viewed it through the lens of the Bible and further life experience, it was like a budding flower whose beauty was slowly unfolding. I saw, and rejoiced at the privilege of participating in, the beautiful mess of sinners saved by grace, ministering to others out of their own weakness and God’s strength. I saw a body with many parts, people uniquely gifted and serving in dramatically different ways. I saw a foretaste of God’s coming kingdom on earth as Jesus brought truth, forgiveness, restoration, and hope to people, through His people. And I saw it all over the world.

Every time I traveled, which seemed to be frequently (an interest in missions, a French/Spanish major, and a brother who lived in Singapore contributed to my passport stamps), I rejoiced in the unity of believers in Jesus that transcends all cultural barriers. My favorite part about visiting a foreign country quickly became going to church on Sunday. What did church look like in a Senegalese village suffering from famine? In a tiny farming town in the Swiss Alps? In the thriving metropolis of Nagoya, Japan?

The answer to this last question surprised me. It came in 2008, several years after my college graduation, when I found myself on a “vision trip” to Japan with my husband of three years. Although I had felt God’s nudging toward missions for many years by this point, I was rather shocked that He seemed to be calling Matt & me to Japan, of all places. I had always pictured myself doing some kind of mercy ministry in a developing country. I could speak French (so, Haiti or West Africa seemed reasonable) and some Spanish (hello, Central and South America!). This new sense of call, however, was destroying my missions paradigm. Not only did I not know a lick of Japanese, what I did know about Japan didn’t attract me, given my previous ministry experience and desires. Japan is economically prosperous. The Japanese are very well educated. They’re technologically advanced. They have excellent health care.  They’re quiet. They’re impeccably clean. They’re polite. The whole country runs on time, if not early.  (In dramatic contrast, I will likely be late to my own funeral.) What could I have to offer them?

As I learned some of the statistics on Christianity (and the lack thereof) in Japan, then began to put faces with those statistics, God began working in my heart to show me that the Japanese are among the neediest people on earth when it comes to the life and death matter of knowing Jesus Christ. The spiritual darkness in the country is palpable. There are over 150,000 cults registered with the Japanese government. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Voluntary teenage prostitution is common, not to mention the country’s history of human trafficking and child pornography. Did you know there is a large and influential Japanese mafia? There are many wonderful things about Japan, but beneath the country’s veneer of perfection there is a depth of depravity that is only explicable in light of Scripture. Like Americans, the Japanese need Jesus; they’re desperate for Him.  Yet unlike most Americans, most Japanese have no idea who He is.

The evangelical church in Japan is tiny. It has a long history, but has perpetually struggled in the face of spiritual opposition. It is this church our family wants to serve. Humbly, realizing we have so much to learn from our Japanese brothers and sisters along the way. Our primary role of service will be helping to build the Japanese church via the indirect avenue of theological education. Yet, we also desire to simply be present, members of Jesus’ global church, serving in our new local church environment however we can, perhaps sometimes simply by sharing our Christian heritage. Such a heritage probably won’t be taken for granted in an environment where Christian families (in which both spouses know Jesus), much less generations of believers, are rare.

We’ve been told that simply living life as a Christian family, seeking to raise our children in the Lord, and inviting Japanese friends and neighbors into our home will be a huge ministry in itself. As I think of the multitude of believers God has used to influence me spiritually from childhood onward, I can’t imagine where I would be without them. He provided Christian teachers and mentors, friends’ parents and my own, and many other believers, to love, instruct, and encourage me over the years. They showed me (often unknowingly) what walking with God looks like on a daily basis. Countless brothers and sisters in Christ demonstrated His love to my family in a myriad of practical ways following the tragic deaths of each of my parents. What if I had been born into a typical Japanese family and these types of people simply hadn’t existed?

Will you pray for Japan?  Will you consider helping us serve there?

Perspectives from the Road

IMG_1165I’m currently on my first support raising road trip, which has taken me up to our old stomping grounds in the Chicago area. I drove up last week, and as you can see from the picture to the right, I had one slight problem on the road – my front right tire blew out on the interstate – which generated an automotive version of that airplane turbulence that we all hate. Thankfully, I was able to get over to the shoulder safely and get the tire fixed quickly.

However, while the trip didn’t start off as smoothly as it could have, the rest of it has gone quite famously. I’ve been able to connect with a lot of old friends, share with many about what God is doing in Japan, visit Crossway Publishers and record a video intro for my forthcoming Exodus study, and had the privilege of preaching at Missions Sunday for our former church up here, New Covenant Church of Naperville.

IMG_7644In the midst of all this fun, though, I have to confess that I really miss my family. I’ve been looking forward to this trip, to be sure, but I’m looking forward even more to going home and seeing Caroline and the kids.

Speaking of which, I also have to say that I’m extremely grateful for the service my wife is performing at home while I’m gone. It’s easy for people to recognize what I’m doing as I’m up preaching in the church and getting videoed in a publishing studio, but she is the one doing the most important (and much more difficult!) work of taking care of our children by herself. And to top it off, all three kiddos have gotten sick while I’ve been gone. I’m so grateful for her doing this quiet and faithful service. If you think of them this week, please pray that the Lord would bring everyone back to full health — and that I don’t pop any more tires on the ride home!